|IS WORKFARE MORAL?|
Join the debate over whether workfare is modern slavery....
August 6, 1997
in this forum:
Would mandatory drug testing be more moral than workfare? What should religious organizations do to ease the plight of the poor? Weren't slaves treated better than welfare recipients are today? How can the religious community help change the public discourse on what is moral in this unfair and unjust economy? Your additional questions and comments
July 1, 1997:
How states are complying with new federal guidelines.
June 11, 1997:
The transition made by of hundreds of people who've moved from welfare to work as part of corporate programs to hire people on assistance.
April 14, 1997:
New California laws link food stamps to work.
Browse the NewsHour's index of Welfare stories.
Rev. Sirico's New York Times editorial defending workfare.
Labor unions critique the effects of workfare on employment opportunities.
Theodore Bowling of Charlotte, NC, asks:
The institution of modern welfare progams began most notably in the Roosevelt Administration. These were, by and large, programs such as WPA and CCC, very similar to the more recent "workfare" programs. Is not the proposed "workfare" revolution simply a return to the basic premise of the original programs: to provide the worker with the pride of a job and to allow unemployed to learn job skills necessary for survival?
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Stephen Wise Synagogue responds:
Allow me to cite a religious source first. The great medieval philosopher and teacher, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides) taught that the highest form of charity was teaching a person to be self-sufficient by teaching that person skills to work. On that ground I support, wholeheartedly, the philosophy behind Workfare. The WPA was a great example of putting this philosophy into practical use and benefiting society.
I can only speak about the New York City version of Workfare, known here are the Work Experience Program. However, there is little analogue between the WPA and WEP. The people on the WEP do menial tasks, with no chance for advancement or permanent placement. Through attrition the City has reduced its workforce in the Departments of Sanitation, Housing and Parks -- using WEP workers to fill in the spaces once allowing people to earn a living with benefits. The WEP workers work in terrible conditions, without proper supplies, and no place for redress of grievances.
I would actively support a WPA-like program. But currently, the WEP workers are not learning skills that lead to full-time employment. They are being used as political window-dressing in an election year to convince the middle-class voters that welfare recipients are finally giving something back to society. I want to help create a system that is fair -- that would truly lead to gainful employment.
Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute responds:
Mr. Bowling gives the best possible case for workfare: it builds the work ethic where it has atrophied, and it imparts the pride that comes with working and accomplishing a goal. But the example of the New Deal's CCC and WPA point to a danger associated with workfare. Whatever the merit of those programs, they were hugely expensive and the final product did not always reflect the best use of resources.
Neither should modern workfare become an excuse for the government to merely employ more people in its own ranks, doing work only the government thinks is important (as versus what really is important). It is also true that many workfare programs have proven to be even more expensive for the taxpayer than old- fashioned handouts.
In designing workfare programs, we need to keep the goal in mind. It isn't just to make sure that everyone in society has a job of some sort. The goal should be to provide opportunities for people to do socially productive work, preferably in the private sector where their efforts are in the service of society and not the political class.